Damascene is a technique for surface decoration that involves the inlaying of gold or silver wire or foil into grooves cut into the surface of metal, usually bronze, iron or steel. The result is similar to Niello and also is reminiscent of Pique work. Real Damascene work is made with 18k or 24k gold; ‘faux-Damascene’ is not usually made with real gold or silver and is mass produced. (Damascene work also has a variety of other applications besides jewelry which I am not going into here.)
European and Middle Eastern Damascene Work
European Damascene work originated in Damascus, Syria and was taken to Spain by the Moors. The name ‘Damascene’ came about because the English were reminded of the tapestry patterns of Damask silk. Toledo, Spain has been the center for this kind of work in Europe since the Middle Ages. Toledo Damascene work is also known as ‘Toledo work’ or ‘Damasquinado de Oro’ or ‘Damasquino’. Toledo work is usually made with a steel base and gold foil worked into the engraved cuts. A bluing compound is then used to darken the background and gold plating is done on the other surfaces. The back of Toledo Damascene jewelry pieces are finished in gold metal. Mycenae, Greece is also a center for Damascene work as well as of course Damascus itself.
Toledo Damascene generally has one of two traditional and distinct types of motifs; the Arabesque or geometric designs, and the Renaissance motifs, displaying variations of birds and flowers.
Renaissance Motifs in Toledo Damascene Work
Arabesque Motifs in Toledo Damascene Work
Damascene type techniques are also done in Asia, particularly in Japan where is is known as Zougan or Shakudo. Zougan work in Japan is particularly found in Kyoto where it a traditional craft and has its origins in sword-making. This kind of Japanese Zougan work appears to have originated in China and developed independently from European Damascene work. As Japanese motifs are popular in European jewelry evaluating the origin of a piece of Damascene is not always straight forward and other factors must be considered besides the motif. Asian Damascene work can be extraordinarily fine. Hair-ornaments are one popular application for this kind of work.
Sources / further reading: